Who’s starting up top and other questions surrounding the USWNT

Quick
Hits
  • The Concacaf W Championship is just around the corner for the U.S. women’s national team – and before that, the U.S. has two friendlies against Columbia 
  • Ahead of the biggest games that the U.S. has played since last year’s Olympics, let’s dive into a couple of questions about the USWNT 
Sep 21, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; United States forward Alex Morgan (13) reacts after an international friendly soccer match against Paraguay at TQL Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The United States women’s national team will have two final tune-up matches against Colombia on June 25 and June 28 before heading to Mexico to compete in the 2022 Concacaf W Championship. At the W Championship, the U.S. will vie for spots in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Summer Olympics. 

Though we’re less than two weeks away from the start of the Concacaf W Championship, there are a couple of outstanding questions about the USWNT that we’ve been mulling over at each end of the field.

Who will start in the front line for the United States?

The United States will most likely line-up in a 4-3-3 formation during this tournament, so we’re looking for three names here. Following head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s press conference last week, though, two of these are no-brainers: Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh.

As Andonovski addressed the media about the USWNT’s newly named group of forwards, he mentioned that it would be difficult for players to come in and “take [Smith’s and Pugh’s] starting spots.” No surprise there, given how dangerous those two wingers have been with the national team and in the NWSL this season.

But who is going to play between Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh?

In the five matches leading up to this window for the USWNT, Catarina Macario slotted into the No. 9 position. Given that she’s out with an ACL tear, either the Washington Spirit’s Ashley Hatch or San Diego Wave FC’s Alex Morgan will likely be called upon to fill that hole in the United States’s lineup. 

Hatch has earned a fair amount of minutes at the No. 9 spot for the United States so far this year, often rotating in for Macario. She’s appeared eight times and notched four goals and one assist for the USWNT in her career, with five of these appearances and two of those goals coming in 2022. In the NWSL, the reigning Golden Boot winner has scored four goals over 10 games for the Washington Spirit.

Morgan, on the other hand, is a long-time U.S. veteran. She’s appeared 190 times for the U.S. and scored 115 goals. Even so, Morgan struggled to make USWNT rosters earlier in 2022, and Andonovski said he felt that veteran players like Morgan needed to perform in their markets to show “they can still contribute and be valuable for the national team.”

Well, Morgan clearly took that advice to heart. 

She’s been a huge reason why San Diego has been atop the NWSL standings since week two of the regular season. She’s leading the league in goals with 11 through 10 games – already having topped Hatch’s 2021 season mark. Now, four of these 11 have been from the penalty spot, but that shouldn’t take away from how great Morgan has been in the run-of-play.

Even without those four penalty goals, Morgan would still be second in the league in goals. Smith and Pugh are right behind her, with eight and six goals for far this season, respectively.

Between her experience with the national team and her form in the NWSL, I’d wager that Morgan will be the U.S.’s primary No. 9 at the W Championship.

Which goalkeeper is next in line behind Alyssa Naeher?

Moving back to the defensive third, another outstanding question for Andonovski’s U.S. team is related to the goalkeeping position.

Given Alyssa Naher’s consistent excellence with the national team and in the NWSL, Andonovski and Co. will likely call on the veteran to lead this new-look USWNT squad from the back. But who is next on the depth chart between North Carolina’s Casey Murphy and Washington Spirit’s Aubrey Kingsbury?

It’s a tough question, because neither goalkeeper has more than a handful of appearances for the United States. Kingsbury earned her first (and only) start on April 12th of this year for the USWNT’s 9-0 win against Uzbekistan. Murphy has only appeared for the U.S. four times, perhaps most notably during her back-to-back lights-out performances against Australia at the end of 2021. She was left off the USWNT roster for the April friendlies as she was recovering from an MCL injury that also sidelined her for the beginning of the 2022 NWSL season.

Due to their limited USWNT experience, the coaching staff’s decisions could come down to NWSL performances. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for the staff, both Kingsbury and Murphy have great track records for their clubs in the NWSL. Kingsbury is the owner of the 2019 and 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Awards, and while Murphy was a runner-up for the 2019 award and left off the short-list entirely in 2021, her performances have been equally as impressive.

Last season, which was her first in North Carolina, Murphy started 24 games and recorded 11 shut-outs, which tied the NWSL record for clean sheets in a season.

Fast-forward to 2022, and the Spirit (seventh place, 1W-6D-3L) and Courage (12th place, 2W-1D-4L) have been struggling. As a result, both keepers’ stats aren’t quite where they were in 2021. Kingsbury and Murphy are both conceding more goals per 90, posting fewer saves per 90, and recording worse save percentages so far this season relative to last. 

Team results and NWSL data aside, I think Andonovski might favor Murphy over Kingsbury when both players are healthy and available for the United States, much like he did at the end of the 2021 calendar year.